A couple years ago, I stopped by Target to pick up a few necessities. As I was putting my purchases in the trunk of my
beater . . . uh, vintage Honda Accord, a thirty-something guy walked up to me with iPod earbuds around his neck, dressed in better clothes than I was wearing, and asked me for a handout.
Generally when people ask for money, I try to give it. I mean, I may not have much, but I have a roof over my head. And I think the love of Christ compels me to share with those who are less fortunate. Except . . . this guy didn’t look less fortunate. And he also seemed oblivious about the situation because when I said I didn’t think he was any less prosperous than I, he started to argue.
A few weeks ago a visitor to my church blessed a homeless woman (I’ll call her Joy) who sometimes attends by taking her out to lunch. The next week the visitor who was returning home the next day wanted to give Joy a sort of care package but couldn’t find her, so left it with me in our church library (where Joy often comes to watch the service on closed circuit TV).
Sure enough, a short time later she came in. I happily gave her the sack with her name on it and explained where it came from. She thanked me, looked inside, and left it on the counter. Don’t forget you bag, I reminded her a couple times. At last she was packed up and ready to leave. She stopped by the library desk and said she didn’t think she could take the food sack. It was pretty heavy and most of the things in it she couldn’t eat. No problem, I said, and took the bag to the donations bin.
Just a week ago or so, I came to a stop light and in the center divider was a young man who looked like he could be a football player—a wide receiver, perhaps. And he was holding a sign—something like, “Veteran down on his luck.” He was collecting donations from the people waiting for the light to turn.
I kept thinking, I wish I knew a job opening where he could apply. I think that’s what he needs to spend his time doing instead of panhandling.
But there it was—my attitude toward people who seem to have a sense of entitlement, to the point that healthy young men (seemingly healthy, at any rate) are begging for money instead of looking for work, and homeless old women are turning down food.
I’m caught between feeling the responsibility to share generously with those in need, and the suspicion that the needy are too often gaming the system.
I didn’t mention the times I’ve been asked for a couple dollars for the bus or money for gas because their tank is empty and they don’t have any cash on them. Sure, maybe . . . And maybe not.
It doesn’t help that a local news show that exposes frauds and injustices did a piece some time ago about a guy who panhandled for several hours at a gas station, then got into his BMW, or some other equally expensive vehicle. He had no problem making money off other people’s generosity.
I have to wonder what Jesus would do in these circumstances. He didn’t give out money, but He distributed food. As I noted in “Take Up Your Cross Daily”, however, there came a point when He said, if you want to come after me, you need to stop living for your self.
Of course I’m not Jesus, and I don’t want people following me. I do want, however, to be a representative of Christ to the watching world.
Some Christians think we do no one any favor by giving beggars money because they might use it for drugs. Or we’re making it easy for them not to get a job. What they need, the thinking goes, is tough love, not a handout.
But what about compassion? Jesus saw needs and was moved with compassion. I think the visitor to our church was moved by compassion for Joy. But in the end, what she offered was spurned.
Does that matter? Isn’t it always right to do right, no matter what the other person does? I mean, none of us “deserves” what we have, contrary to all the commercials that say otherwise. We certainly don’t deserve God’s compassion.
Is compassion like forgiveness? James leads me to think it is. He made the case for treating people without partiality, then concluded that section by saying, “For judgment will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:12)
About forgiveness, Paul said, “Just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” (Col. 3:14b) And of course Jesus told the story about the forgiven servant who turned around and refused to forgive the debt of a fellow servant.
I’m not saying giving to homeless people or beggars is required of the Christian, but I think a heart of compassion is. I don’t need to judge Joy for turning down the offering of food. She said something about a special diet because of allergies and the weight which put stress on her bad back. I have allergies too, and sometimes my back is bad. I don’t want people judging me for the way I deal with those conditions, so why should I judge her.
The homeless guys and the beggars may be scamming the public, but is it my place to judge them? Even if I’m not in a position to give money to them, I can give what I have—prayer for their physical needs, prayer for their ethical and moral needs. God knows exactly what those are, so it’s never wrong to pray.